A century ago, outsiders saw China as a place where nothing ever changes. Today the country has become one of the most dynamic regions on earth. In Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler explores the human side of China's transformation, viewing modern-day China and its growing links to the Western world through the lives of a handful of ordinary people. In a narrative that gracefully moves between the ancient and the present, the East and the West, Hessler captures the soul of a country that is undergoing a momentous change before our eyes.
About the Author
Peter Hessler is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the Beijing correspondent from 2000 to 2007, and is also a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of River Town, which won the Kiriyama Prize; Oracle Bones, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; and, most recently, Country Driving. He won the 2008 National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, and he was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011. He lives in Cairo.
Date of Birth:June 14, 1968
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Education:Princeton University, Creative Writing and English, 1992; Oxford University, English Language and Literature, 1994
Read an Excerpt
A Journey Through Time in China
May 8, 1999
I was the last clipper at the beijing bureau of the Wall Street Journal. The bureau was cramped—two rooms and a converted kitchen—and the staff consisted of two foreign correspondents, a secretary, a driver, and a clipper. The driver and I shared the kitchen. My tools were a set of box cutters, a metal ruler, and a glass-covered desk. Every afternoon, the foreign newspapers were stacked above the desk. If an article about China seemed worthwhile, I spread the paper on the glass, carved out the story, and filed it in the cabinets at the back of the main office. They paid me five hundred American dollars every month.
The bureau was located in the downtown embassy district, a couple of miles from Tiananmen Square. In a neighborhood to the north, I found a cheap apartment to rent. It was a mixed area: old brick work-unit housing, some traditional hutong alleys, a luxury hotel. On one corner, next to the sidewalk, stood a big Pepsi billboard illuminated by floodlights. It was still possible to live quite simply in that part of the capital. Restaurants served lunch for less than a dollar, and I biked everywhere. When the spring evenings turned warm, young couples played badminton by the light of the Pepsi billboard.
At most other foreign bureaus in Beijing, clippers had already become obsolete, because everything was being computerized. In the old days, paper files had been necessary, and young people accepted the job because it provided an introduction to journalism. A clipper sometimes helped with research and, ifa big news event broke, he might do some spot reporting. On the average, the job required only a few hours a week, which left plenty of time for travel and freelance writing. A clipper could learn the ropes, publish some stories, and eventually become a real China correspondent. I had some previous experience in the country, teaching English and studying Chinese, but I had never worked as a journalist. I arrived in Beijing with three bags, a stack of traveler's checks, and an open-ended return ticket from St. Louis. I was twenty-nine years old.
The small bureau was pleasant—the crisp smell of newspapers, the smattering of languages that echoed off the old tiled floors. The foreign staff and the secretary spoke both English and Chinese, and the driver was a heavyset man with a strong Beijing accent. While filing the clipped stories, I thought of the subject headings as another language that I would someday learn. The folders were arranged alphabetically, by topic:
Complicated topics were subdivided:
During my early days on the job, I hoped that the files could provide useful training. I often pulled a folder and read through dozens of stories, yellowed with age, all of them circling around the same topic. But inevitably I started skimming headlines; after a while, even the headlines bored me. To amuse myself while working, I read the file labels in alphabetical order, imagining possible storylines to connect them:
science & technology
secrets & spies
One section of Ps read like a tragedy, complete with hubris, in all of six words:
Another series seemed scrambled beyond comprehension:
Once, I pointed out this sequence to the bureau chief, who remarked that sooner or later every China correspondent has to write an article about tea. In May of 1999, when a United States B2 plane took off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, flew to Belgrade, and dropped a series of satellite-directed bombs on the Chinese embassy, killing three Chinese journalists, the Wall Street Journal created a new file: U.S.-China—Embassy Bombing. It fit next to exchanges.
I happened to be in the southern city of Nanjing when the attack occurred. That was my first research trip: I planned to write a newspaper travel article about the history of the city, which had been the capital of China during various periods. Nanjing was the sort of place important events always seemed to march through on their way to some other destination. Over the centuries, various armies had occupied the city, and great leaders had come and gone, leaving nothing but tombs and silent memorials of stone. Even the name itself—"Southern Capital"—was a type of memory.
Artifacts had been strewn everywhere around Nanjing. Outside of town, the emperor Yongle of the Ming dynasty had commissioned the carving of the biggest stone tablet in the world as a memorial to his father, the dynastic founder. In 1421, Yongle moved the capital north to Beijing, for reasons that remain unclear, and his engineers left the tablet unfinished. Supposedly they had never figured out how they were going to move the object.
When I visited the stone tablet, there were only a handful of tourists at the site. The quarry was mostly overgrown, with young trees and low bushes creeping up the rolling hills. The abandoned memorial consisted of three parts: a broad base, an arched cap, and the main body of the tablet itself. The limestone object lay on its side, as if some absentminded giant had set it down and then wandered away. It was 147 feet long, and the top edge stood as high as a three-story building. Over the centuries, straight streaks of rain runoff had stained the stone face, like lines on a child's writing pad. Apart from those water marks, the surface was completely blank; nobody had ever gotten around to inscribing the intended memorial. Visitors could walk freely on top. There weren't any rails.
A young woman named Yang Jun staffed the ticket booth. She was twenty years old, a country girl who had come to Nanjing to find work. Young people like her were flocking to cities all across the nation—more than one hundred million Chinese had migrated, mostly to the factory boomtowns of the southern coast. Social scientists described it as the largest peaceful migration in human history. This was China's Industrial Revolution: a generation that would define the nation's future.Oracle Bones
A Journey Through Time in China. Copyright © by Peter Hessler. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
Author's Note xi
The Underground City 3
The Middleman 9
The Written World 33
The Voice of America 37
The Broken Bridge 57
The Wall 75
The Overnight City 77
The Voice of the Turtle 135
At Night You're Not Lonely 149
The Courtyard 174
The Bronze Head 189
The Book 221
The Uncracked Bone 243
The Games 259
The Word 289
Straight to Video 310
The Horse 325
Wonton Western 335
The Criticism 383
State Visit 393
The Lost Alphabets 401
Encapsulate Prime 419
The Misprinted Character 431
Patton's Tomb 437
The Sold Words 443
What People are Saying About This
“An extraordinary, genre-defying book. . . . Beautifully constructed. . . . Hessler’s reportage is vivid.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Peter Hessler is an amazing writer! I really enjoy his writing style which is clear, insightful,intelligent and well researched.
This book seems informal, without pre-set plan or structure. The author seems to wander around, hanging out with ordinary people. He follows a number of friendships over several years, switching back and forth between people and places. And slowly I realized this is the finest sort of journalism I've seen. The loose net of stories explores China from dozens of viewpoints--of Uighur traders, migrant teachers, aging archaeologists, factory girls. Gradually themes of investigation arise--into the fate of an archeologist who died in the Cultural Revolution, or the story of China's script. There's no central theme. Just a world of lives and experiences spread across China, captured with unpretentious art. --author of A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization
i read this book right after i visited china and i loved it! it provides very helpful insight into the china of today and is an entertaining well-written read.
A fascinating account of the author's experiences interwoven with much historical information.
I do like this book, though I like his other book River Town better. Very good story line, but not deep in the general understanding about this vast changing nation and its knowledge of history is rather limited. I'd recommend two more insightful books: 1. China's Global Reach: markets, multinationals, and globalization 2. 1587: a new year of no significance. Both are written by leading Chinese writers.
Like most "access books" written by journalists written on the promise of purchase on a certain exotic place or world, this is a bit of a clearinghouse of recycled or undeveloped ideas for Hessler's New Yorker pieces, underwritten by a certain amount of time spent establishing bona fides and bound together with two conceits--a series of parallel but mostly unintersecting personal narratives the author checks in with (his own, his Uyghur emigrant friend Polat's, his students Emily and William Jefferson Foster's, the logograph scholar Chen Mengjia's), and a look--through interviews, through personalities--at the development of Chinese writing and particularly the early practice of "oracle bones", animal bones with characters on them thrwon into the fire to crack for divination purposes. It's an embarrassment of scaffolding that never quite congeals to become high-concept, and the book feels haphazard as a result, certainly the kind of thing that would have been better as a series of magazine pieces. But there's also a lot of interesting fragments here if you're willing to comb through the ashes.
A young free-lance journalist and English teacher in China shows the great differences and similarities between China and the U.S. Hessler is especially good at capturing the experience of everyday people, often his former students, as they deal with the complexities of modern China.
This is one of the best books I've read in months, complex and multi-layered but engaging. Oracle Bones weaves together multiple threads: the experiences of young Chinese moving from rural cities to the booming coastal metropolises; the story of a Uigher friend who emigrates to the U.S.; and a set of linked discussions of archeology, the suicide of a talented academic during the Cultural Revolution, and the evolution of written Chinese. Each thread provides a wealth of interesting information about China's history and current culture. Collectively, the stories explore several deeper themes: what it feels like to be a migrant far from home; how rapidly Chinese society has changed in a generation; what America looks like from the outside. Finally, as the stories unfold, they periodically pivot on a level that pulls all the other themes into alignment: Hessler's skepticism of third-person journalism (p.300 - 303); his analysis of the ways in which China and America are alike (p.439 - 440). I checked this book out of the library, but having read it, it's one I want to own.
A good writer and storyteller. Often when I read books in this genre, they assume the reader doesn't know a lot about Chinese history or culture, so they bore me with the retelling of information that I've heard many times. Hessler doesn't do that, or he conveys the information in a way that gives it a new and interesting slant. Then he goes on to show me things or take me places that I've never seen before. Both this book and "River Town" are excellent.
Oracle Bones is an excellent look at life in daily China. Written by a former English teacher, the book tells the story of the author's students living through their twenties: William Jefferson, an English teacher, and Emily, a secretary, are particularly memorable. He accents the story with a look at a Uighur's (Polack was his name) trading life in Beijing and his subsequent emigration to the United States. Every few chapters we're taken back to the story of Chen Menjia and the oracle bones of Anyang. Overall an excellent book on everyday China; a fun, insightful read. Highly recommended.
Parts of this book I loved and parts I wasn¿t interested in at all. Hessler wanders all over the place, talking to people in China, average people, oddball people. Hessler showed me things about China I¿d never thought existed, including ethnic minorities and the slow economic changes occurring.
¿Oracle Bones¿ is the latest book from Peter Hessler, Beijing correspondent for ¿The New Yorker.¿ In this book, he tells a number of stories that chronicle the changing landscape of China. Interspersed throughout is the story of the archeology and scholars of the Oracle Bones--bones that, in ancient China, were heated, cracked and read for divination. In addition to the stories on the oracle bones, Hessler writes about some of his past students at Fuling Teachers College where he spent time as a Peace Corps volunteer. He describes their migration from the interior of China to the boom cities along the coast and of their travails and successes in these new locales. These were some of the same students that he wrote about in his previous book, ¿River Town.¿In these stories as well as the others in the book, Hessler demonstrates how the changes of China are impacting its people. This is a good read and a book that I am glad to have in my library.
It is a bit disconcerting for a person of Chinese descent to learn about himself and his culture from a yanguezhi (foreign devil). Yet this is exactly what happened when I read Oracle Bones. This is an extremely fine book, full of subtle observations and exquisite narratives of matters great and small. Like Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering, Peter Hessler attempts many things in this moveable feast. This is a travel journal, a small peek at how Hessler was able to parlay a stint in the Peace Corp teaching English in China to a freelance gig writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The New Yorker. Mostly this is a expansive look and humanistic rumination on how the globalization of the free market has touched the lives of common people of China, as exemplified by a number of Hessler's English students. Hessler used the story of his Uighur friend Polat to give us a view of every day street life in Beijing as well as the life of an oppressed asylum seeker in the US. This style can easily become clumsy and ponderous, but Hessler does a masterful job of keeping the narrative interesting and colorful enough to lead the reader along through the turbulence of the serial form without losing each of the intricate interweaving threads. The key to Hessler's success with this form is his usage of the archeological history of the Oracle Bones in China as the rhythm section to his narrative. Much like a steady drum beat in a good song, the rhythm soon overtakes much of the decorative accompaniment and dominates the song. The story of the archeology serves as a solid counterpoint for Hessler's riffing on globalization, on the ever-changing business environment in China, and on the peculiar yet inscrutable reactions of the Chinese government to all these changes. As the story evolves, the story of the Oracle Bones and the scholar who deciphered them comes around to dominate the narrative. The story wends itself around all the previous threads and makes the juxtaposing lines of inquiry reasonable. The story of the scholar, his wife, his family, and his wife's family, and his various colleagues - friends or foe- is transcendental in its universality. The latter part of the book, majority of which is devoted to the story of the Oracle Bone scholar has the impact of a fine mystery novel and it gives the reader the punch in the gut that one rarely gets when reading a travelogue or a book of history, or an autobiographical portrait. This book was thoroughly enjoyable; it was concomitantly informative and soothing to the soul. The writing was superb, rhythmic, and transformational in its structure and meaning.
Much better than River Town, for anyone interested in everyday life in current China
I picked up this book after reading Hessler's articles for the New Yorker. It starts out strong, but seems to get more pointless towards the end. This part isn't particularly well written, there are no special insights, and it seems like he is trying to fill space.
Fantastic book - written in very easy to understand style, literary non-fiction. Author brings China to life, bringing everyday people forward as heros.